Growing up, Michael Ferguson loved horror films. In 1974 he read about the release of Andy Warhol's Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein. "When I heard they were gross, X-rated, and sexually perverse, I became very interested," he says.
Ferguson took the train the 60-odd miles from Woodstock to Chicago, where an older friend got him in to see a double feature. He liked the films, but he was a bit disappointed by one of the lead actors, Joe Dallesandro. "I thought he was terrible. I thought he didn't belong in the film."
But there was something about Dallesandro. After doing some research, Ferguson discovered that Dallesandro was the "naked film star" of the Warhol and Paul Morrissey trilogy Flesh, Trash, and Heat. "Everyone in those films was flamboyant and outrageous, and here was this quiet kid standing off to the side not saying anything," he says. "I became more interested in finding out about him, but the more I read, the less I knew about the guy."
Ferguson's discovery of Dallesandro came at a time when he was coming to terms with his homosexuality. "The fact that he was open or appeared to be open to the attentions of both male and female audience members made me that much more attracted to him," says Ferguson, who calls Dallesandro "this great, virtually unexplored, and sometimes barely acknowledged male sex symbol. At the time of Stonewall he gave an emerging gay subculture almost an icon. He was the first overtly sexualized male in the movies."
Ferguson himself briefly pursued an acting career in Hollywood, but soon returned to Woodstock, where he ran a movie theater for ten years and wrote about films for the daily paper. Later he began writing for cult-movie magazines.
Dallesandro remained an enigma: he was notorious for shunning interviews, and the flurry of books released after Warhol's death barely mentioned him. Nevertheless Ferguson decided to pitch a story on him to Cult Movies.
In July 1995 Ferguson was finishing up that article when he decided to give the actor a call. "I thought I'd at least give it a shot," he says. "I didn't think he'd talk to me."
Dallesandro agreed to talk to him because Ferguson wanted to talk about his entire career, not just the Warhol years.
"I was lucky enough to get him at a time when he was just beginning to deal with the Warhol fame and talk about it without getting angry," says Ferguson. Dallesandro explains, "I really hate it when people ask me how it was with Edie Sedgwick," noting that he and Sedgwick were not at the Factory at the same time. "Michael asked questions that I could respond to with more than, 'Why are you asking me that? It has nothing to do with me.'"
The two arranged a meeting at Dallesandro's home in Los Angeles. Though the actor initially kept Ferguson waiting outside for an hour, they ended up talking for 23 hours straight. Shortly after the article appeared, Companion Press, a small publisher aimed at the gay market, contacted Ferguson about writing a book.
After that it was "constant phone calls" and lots of research. His new book, Little Joe Superstar: The Films of Joe Dallesandro, is a long, rambling, fan-friendly account of Dallesandro's career, from the time he accidentally walked onto the set of Warhol's The Loves of Ondine and was immediately offered a role, to his stint in Europe, where he starred in Louis Malle's Black Moon, to more recent appearances in films like Guncrazy and TV shows like Matlock. The book also contains over 100 photos, including a series of full-frontal "physique" shots he did for Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild in 1965.
Dallesandro, who's 49 and has spent the past two decades trying to live down the Superstar stigma, told Ferguson that he felt like an "outsider" since he didn't attend Factory parties and that he was "treated like a child"--though he did work there, doing everything from running the elevator to office work. "Everybody was doing paintings--even I pushed fucking paint through the screen," he told Ferguson. "It was nothing. It was a fucking joke."
He decided to stay in Europe after shooting Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula back-to-back over two months in Italy; he claimed that Warhol and Morrissey would not let him work for other directors, and he had fallen in love with the Italian actress Stefania Casini. His career was interrupted by his brother's suicide, and he eventually returned to the States in 1980. A year later he'd quit abusing drugs and alcohol and was working as a cab- and limo driver. Finally he landed a role in 1985's The Cotton Club, and he's been working ever since--including an appearance in a Calvin Klein ad campaign in 1996.
Dallesandro still speaks to Morrissey, whom he considers a mentor. He says he's interested in making a science fiction film, and he and Morrissey are in talks with a German company that's trying to raise funds for a documentary about the actor.
Ferguson, who's 36, moved to Chicago three years ago and spends his days at a clerical job at a university. After hours he's working on a book about male film stars, "from Valentino to DiCaprio," who have a strong gay following. Between their current book tour and Dallesandro's work on the documentary, the two speak often.
"I would say we have actually developed a friendship," says Ferguson. "For some people that's a big no-no--can you write about his career and be objective? I'll be the first to admit that objectivity is beyond my realm in that respect."
Flesh screens Wednesday at 7 and 10 at Celluloid Moviebar, 1805 W. Division. Ferguson will interview Dallesandro between the shows. Admission is $15. Call 312-707-8888. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Ferguson photo by Eugene Zakusilo; Andy Warhol's Trash image courtesy Joe Dallesandro; book cover, Joe Dallesandro photo courtesy Joe Dallesandro.